Defining Grace

16 min read

Every Christian is familiar with the term grace. We talk about, read, sing, and even pray about it. Those born again in the faith sometimes speak of experiencing grace. Since we use it so frequently in Christian circles, the definition of grace should be easy to articulate. Is the meaning of grace as well known and understood throughout the Christian community as the word itself?

How do you define grace?

Ironically, as much as we talk about grace, it is only mentioned twice in the Gospel accounts. And both of these instances are very early in Jesus’s earthly life; they appear in Luke’s gospel 2:40 and John’s gospel 1:14-17. After these instances, grace is superseded by ‘favor with God.’ These mentions are sparse as well. One of these is in Luke 1:30; the Virgin Mary finds out she “has found favor with God” and is chosen to birth the incarnate Christ. The second mention of favor is in Luke 2:52, “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”

Oddly a word so frequently used among believers is not very prominent in the four gospels. Could it be we are uncertain about what grace is? Maybe, our uncertainty has caused us to use the word grace as a catch-all when referring to the various parts of our Christian experience. We must not simply allow context to determine the exact definition of grace.

That line of thinking won’t work; you can’t apply the context rule to one word and not other terms that comprise our beliefs’ foundation. For example, faith is consistent in its definition, regardless of context. No, the context rule won’t suffice in searching for a well-defined meaning. Neither will the translation from the original Greek.

The Greek word Charis translates as; grace, kindness, acceptance, benefit, favor, gift, joy, liberality, pleasure, and thank-worthy. Its primary usage is “Grace as a gift or blessing brought to man by God through Jesus Christ.” Using these translated terms points us in the right direction but doesn’t give us a definition. Just because we know the translated word doesn’t mean we understand what the word means.

Think of it this way. If I ask you to define God’s grace, you might reply, ‘its kindness, acceptance, benefit, favor, gift, joy, liberty, pleasure, or a dozen other words.’ And you would be correct. But, how does that help you understand where grace fits in our relationship with God?

Divine favor is a short and accurate definition of grace. And it leads us closer to what we seek, but that’s pretty shallow when you think of all of the Biblical instances that refer to God’s favor. Before we settle for this, let’s see what else we can find. We’ll begin our study by referring to a secular definition of grace.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” Based on this, and what is believed commonly among Christians, grace is salvation. But this is true only in a narrow sense.

For the most part, we tend to think of God’s grace as the same as the gift of salvation. In the broadest and most accurate sense, salvation is a gift from God that we neither deserve nor can earn. But salvation requires participation while grace does not. Because of this distinction, we cannot say they are the same.

God’s plan for man’s salvation, in its entirety, is an act of grace. Only by God’s divine favor is redemption available to us. However, rarely is the term grace found in the same sentence as salvation in the New Testament. And the mention of grace in the context of salvation is always in conjunction with another term, faith.

We see this in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;” Here, we see the two terms grace and faith used together. You might ask, is faith grace? No, it is part of God’s overall divine plan, but it remains a distinct part of the plan. Up to this point, we see two details to salvation: God’s grace and our faith.

There is one more part of this plan I want to point out, and it is another word we often exchange for grace: mercy. In Ephesians 2:4-5, we find this, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved).”

God’s benevolence is the origin of all grace, yet equating mercy and grace as synonymous discredits what grace truly is. Even though mercy and grace come from God, they are not interchangeable, so ending our investigation here is a mistake and robs us of great insight into a potentially wonderful experience in our Christian walk. Remember, in the verse we just quoted; the Apostle Paul distinguishes between mercy and grace by mentioning both in the same sentence.

God’s mercy is a form of grace, but mercy is its own gift. Mercy is an act of grace but in a legal sense. Being sinners, we have violated the law of God. In our society, punishment ensues if you are found guilty of a crime in a court of law. A judge then uses sentencing guidelines to determine your punishment. These guidelines have both minimum and maximum boundaries. The judge can give you the maximum sentence described by law or the minimum.

If the judge gives you the minimum when you deserve the maximum, or dismisses the sentence entirely, then he has shown you mercy, and this of his own volition. So when the Bible speaks of compassion, it is in a legal context. The wages of sin is death, making death the singular sentencing guideline for sin. But God has offered us an alternative, mercy. The only way to obtain that choice (mercy) is through faith.

Here is where we find our singular definition of grace, and it is this: grace is the allowance of opportunity. While mercy is forgiveness for sin, grace is God’s allowing us the chance of mercy, and faith is the mandatory participation for salvation. All of these components comprise the expression of God’s grace, yet they each have a separate and distinct definition and purpose.

Since grace is God’s allowance and our opportunity for salvation, faith is taking this opportunity and doing God’s will. Thus far, we see the three components of salvation we’ve discussed. They are summarized as follows:

I. Mercy. We are dead in sin, and a price has to be paid for that sin, a sacrifice, without blemish. But since we are no longer without defects, we do not possess the means for payment. God knows this, so He provided an unblemished sacrifice for our sins in the person of His only begotten Son.

II. Grace. The access to mercy, the opportunity for redemption. But this opportunity is not forced upon humanity; it is a matter of free choice.

III. Faith. Our participation and acceptance of the mercy offered by God. We are taking hold of the opportunity for salvation offered by God.

All of these are under the umbrella of grace, but you can only realize the importance of what grace is to us if you understand it as the opportunity for redemption. You can see how all three work hand-in-hand and comprise God’s plan of salvation. What a merciful and gracious God we serve.

Let’s look at two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, to understand how these parts work together.

But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” (Genesis 6:8). We see here God’s favor (grace) becomes Noah’s opportunity for salvation. God didn’t tell Noah, ‘I’m going to save you and your family by miraculously providing a boat for your survival. Nor did God tell Noah they would be transported to heaven until the flood was over. No, God tells Noah, ‘you have found favor (an opportunity) with Me for salvation.’

And how was Noah to take advantage of this opportunity? Believing in God’s word and acting on it is faith. God instructed Noah to build the ark. In this interplay between God and Noah, we see another aspect of grace: its opportunity is specific.

Noah found favor with God and gave Noah the opportunity for salvation by believing God’s word and acting on it. But the opportunity had specific instructions; you must build the ark. It was not constructing a tower taller than the depth of the coming waters nor making a watertight cave in which to hide. No, it was the ark and only the ark—one way of salvation. We find the same singularity of salvation in the New Testament.

And it is one of the two mentions of grace in the gospel accounts. John 1:17, “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” Here the way God’s grace leads to salvation is found in Jesus Christ. God has provided the opportunity for our salvation by exercising our faith in Him. And just as we see the singular opportunity in the case of Noah, we now find it in Jesus.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6). Jesus has offered Himself up as payment for which sin legally demanded, death; by an act of mercy available through the grace which is the opportunity for our salvation. Through Him and only Him. This grace, as extraordinary as it is, is also a stern warning to those who insist there are other ways to salvation when there are not.

Believing there is more than one way to salvation is to reject the grace offered to us by God. And the consequence of this rejection is self-denial to the opportunity of salvation. And remember this; while salvation, being a gift, is permanent, grace as opportunity isn’t. “My spirit shall not strive with man forever.” (Genesis 6:3).

When it comes to grace leading to salvation, the Bible is clear, grace, the opportunity to be united with God, is currently available to all “who call upon the name of the Lord,” but there will come a time when the age of grace ends. For most, the opportunity will exist only until you take your last breath, but the uncertainty of when that will happen should provoke you to seize the opportunity at this very moment.

God’s grace for humanity as a whole has an expiration date, and this truth is evident throughout the Old Testament. There are several instances where God withdrew His grace for a time, and the Hebrews suffered the consequences. Do not think things are different with the advent of the New Testament. Both testaments are consistent; there will come a time when the Grace of God will no longer be available to humanity.

The book of Revelation prophetically illustrates what happens to those who have accepted the way of salvation through faith versus the fate of those who have rejected God’s grace. The book of Revelation is very graphic in describing the unpleasant events that follow the end of the age of grace.

Time and time again, Jesus warns those of His day, which echoes today through the scriptures, that there is a time limit to God’s grace. He expressed this truth in many of the parables and sometimes directly. The critical definition of God’s grace is opportunity. Yes, mercy is a component of grace, which we do not deserve and cannot earn. And we can only partake of this mercy by faith, which is taking grace’s opportunity.

We must examine God’s grace’s many beautiful aspects beyond salvation. One is the gifts God has given each of us. The skills I’m referring to are the various talents which we have. There are gifts of song, gifts of prophecy, gifts of study organization, and many others. Hence the expression, ‘he or she has a gift’ for this or that.

I will not spend much time on gifts as an expression of grace, for that is a study of its own and maybe the subject of an upcoming article. You cannot deny the truth; gifts given are service opportunities. The gifts (talents) provided to you, and I are determined by God’s grace, dispensed according to His will, and intended for His glory. The next aspect of grace is one, I’m sad to say, is missed out on by far too many Christians.

And that is living in a state of grace.

The word grace is used in the opening salutations in the epistles. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus.” (I Corinthians 1:3). These salutations to their readers are not sermons of salvation. The Apostle is not saying ‘salvation and peace to you.’ These epistles are addressed to Christian congregations, those already saved.

So what is the grace he is referring to in his opening remarks? The word peace provides us with a clue. Grace and peace are states of being. “Grace to you,” a greeting that implies hope. The Apostle hopes the Christians at these various churches experience God’s grace and peace. It is sharing and living in a state of grace.

What is this state of grace?

It’s when you can ‘freely give because you have freely received.’ Acting as conduits, receiving grace and allowing it to pass on to others. Partakers of the opportunity given through grace—the same opportunity given to others. We don’t deserve the grace afforded to us, and this is where a state of grace is our life’s experience, or it is not.

You may think this is different than the definition we have already determined. But that is not the case. Salvation is the turning away of the old life and being born again into the new. It is not a transaction whereby you accept grace and then go your way. It is not a one-and-done; it is a conversion into a new life, a condition of the mercy provided.

We must always be on guard against losing this state of grace or living outside of it. Being judgmental and jealous of other brothers and sisters in the Lord are warning signs, being envious of their gifts and jealous of their position in the body of Christ. If I am genuinely thankful for the grace given to me, then the grace offered by God to others should be a joy and never give way to jealousy.

Grace is the polar opposite of merit. Since merit is not a determining factor in salvation nor the amount of grace dispensed, we have no right to judge the grace of others.

Trying to rationalize another’s gifts and salvation based on their past sinful actions is a waste of time and none of our business. Again we must warn the Bible is clear that while true born-again salvation is forever secure in Christ, God’s grace is not. There are many instances in scripture where grace is given and withdrawn. And this is a critical difference between grace and salvation.

A different Hebrew term, rendered grace, is found in Ezra 9:8. This passage enforces the truth that grace is not permanent. “But now, for a brief moment, grace has been shown from the Lord.”Now that you are a Christian do not think God cannot and will not withdraw the grace afforded to you. Many Christians have suffered the same fate as those described in I Corinthians 5:5.

But thankfully, there are many Christians I enjoy being around simply because of the air around them. They are always joyous, kind, encouraging, and uplifting. This air-of-joy is of immeasurable worth and importance to a body of believers. I want to share in their state of grace and increase my own. This joy is evident in the lives of those believers who are genuinely appreciative and satisfied with the measure of grace given to them, not envious of the grace extended to others. This absence of anything but joy for others’ reception of grace is true grace.

The one element lacking in today’s church is appreciating our measure of grace. The amount of work you do for the Lord will be rewarded, so busy yourself with doing all you can do, don’t be distracted by the work, or lack thereof, by others in the faith. Do not lose your state of grace by focusing on the favor God granted to others.

In the book of Acts, we find, “And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33).

God’s favor was on them because they were doing the will of God. Notice it was on them all, not just the apostles. Each member was sharing and enjoying the favor of God. No division, no mention of who was less or more important; they were one cohesive unit. The chapter says, “there was not a needy person among them.” All were satisfied; even though there were different gifts and measures of grace, “there was not a needy person among them,” spiritually or physically.

Delight in what opportunities God has given you. We are all human and sometimes ask God for more grace in moments of weakness. The Apostle Paul asked God to remove a “thorn in the flesh.” God’s reply was, “My grace is sufficient.” We are not privy to what that ‘thorn in the flesh was, but God did not take it away.

So it should be with us. God’s grace is always sufficient. While we may want more, we don’t need more. I hope this article has been of some worth to you. I wish we make every effort to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (I Peter 4:10). Life in a state of grace will enable you to live a life of joy, no matter the circumstances. God’s grace is always sufficient.

Now that grace has been defined, in the future, when you see it in the scriptures, it will open up new insights into the expanse of God’s love for us. It is truly the abundant life our Lord promised.

It enabled martyrs for Christ to breathe their last breath without fear. I have seen it in the face of those facing certain death due to disease. I experienced it when we lost our daughter. And I have seen it in the lives of countless others who have faced and endured tragedy. I leave you with the same salutation the Apostles offered, “Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus.”

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